When Allergies Get to Your Eyes
Burning, stinging, or tearing in your eyes may be signs of eye allergies. Learn what can trigger this problem and how it can be treated.

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Picture of a man cleaning his eyes When Allergies Get to Your Eyes

You were mowing the lawn about 15 minutes ago. Now your eyes are watery, itchy, and red. It could be eye allergies - 1 in 5 Americans has this problem.

Eye allergies are also known as allergic conjunctivitis. The condition comes from inflammation of the conjunctiva, the thin membrane that covers the inside of the eyelids and the eye. You get symptoms when your body's immune system overreacts to an allergen.

About 80 to 90 percent of all eye allergies are due to seasonal allergens, like pollen or grasses. Doctors are also seeing more cases related to medications and contact lens wear.

If you think you have allergies, the first step is to visit your health care provider to get diagnosed. Your doctor may refer you to an allergy specialist. Skin tests can detect your allergic triggers. Tests are usually done in an allergist's office and you'll often know the results within 20 minutes. In more serious cases, the allergist may:

  • Examine the inside of your eyelid
  • Test a few cells from inside the eyelid

Common triggers of eye allergies are:

  • Grass
  • Tree and weed pollens
  • Pet hair
  • Dust mites
  • Molds

Signs of an eye allergy
Allergens cause cells in the eye to release histamine and other chemicals. This makes blood vessels in the eyes swell. Other symptoms may include:

  • Itching
  • Redness
  • Tearing
  • Burning
  • Swelling or redness of the inner eyelids
  • Light sensitivity
  • A feeling of grit in the eyes

You may also have nasal symptoms, such as a runny or itchy nose, congestion, or headache. Hay fever, sinusitis, asthma, or eczema may occur at the same time, too. People with year-round eye allergies may have more problems during allergy seasons.

Managing an eye allergy
Your doctor will work up a treatment plan based on your allergy test results. A plan usually starts with tips to avoid and control your contact with allergens.

For outdoor allergens:

  • Stay indoors when pollen and mold counts are high.
  • Shower and shampoo after playing or working outside.
  • When possible, keep car and house windows closed and use air conditioning.

For indoor allergens:

  • Keep pets out of the bedroom and out of the house if you can.
  • Cover pillows and mattresses with airtight covers.
  • Wash bedding and stuffed toys weekly in hot water (130 degrees).
  • Remove any indoor mold in your home.
  • Keep humidity levels low.

It is also a good idea to avoid smoke, perfume, and exhaust fumes. They are not allergens, but these irritants may make symptoms worse.

These self-care measures may also give some relief:

  • Place cool compresses on the eyes to ease swelling.
  • Avoid rubbing or touching your eyes. This can release more chemicals and cause more itching.
  • Wash your hands often.
  • Don't wear contact lenses until symptoms are gone.

Medical treatment
Medical treatments are also available for eye allergies. Your doctor may suggest one of these over-the-counter or prescription eye drops:

  • Topical antihistamines
  • Topical corticosteroids
  • Topical mast cell stabilizers
  • Topical anti-inflammatory medication

Applied directly to the eye, these medications help stop the release of chemicals that cause symptoms. But some of these drugs may not be suggested for long-term use.

Your doctor may also recommend:

  • Artificial tear drops. They can water down allergens and relieve itching.
  • Refrigerating your eye drops. These can be more soothing, but first check with your pharmacist or doctor to be sure the medication can safely be refrigerated.
  • Over-the-counter or prescription antihistamines. Taken by mouth, these may relieve itchy eyes, but may dry eyes and cause more itching for some people.

If you have eye allergies that do not respond to these treatments, you may be a candidate for allergy shots. This therapy can help your body build up tolerance to substances that are sensitive to your body.

By Louis Neipris, MD, Contributing Writer
Created on 03/15/2002
Updated on 05/25/2011
  • American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology. Ocular allergies.
  • American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology. Eye allergy.
  • World Allergy Organization. Allergic conjunctivitis.
  • National Eye Institute. Facts about the cornea and corneal disease.
Copyright © OptumHealth.
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